A mother screams at her ex-husband near their child, who sits quietly with her hands covering her ears.
Emotions are contagious! The stronger the emotions, the more likely we are to catch them – good and bad. As human beings, we’re hard wired to be influenced by each other’s emotions. The closer the relationship, the more easily we absorb what each other is feeling – mostly without even realizing it. Recent brain research has discovered how this seems to happen.
The amygdala in our brain is like a smoke detector. What we see, hear and feel is always being immediately checked for signs of danger by the amygdala, much faster than we can consciously think. Once the amygdala senses danger, it can instantly shift all of our attention to protecting ourselves by setting off the “fight, flight or freeze response” in our brains – within a fraction of a second!
You actually have two of these almond-shaped amygdala – one in the mid- brain area of your brain’s left hemisphere and one in the midbrain area of your right hemisphere. Remember, the right brain is the side that is more responsive to non-verbal information (facial expressions, tone of voice, hand gestures) and more active with negative emotions.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that research shows the right amygdala is extremely sensitive to other people’s facial expressions of fear and anger – more so than any other emotions. When someone else’s face looks extremely angry or extremely scared, it instantly sets off your amygdala and your brain drops whatever you were thinking about.
It then focuses all of your attention on whether you need to fight or flee the situation – unless your brain is used to the threat and used to overriding it with its higher functioning prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that’s just behind your forehead and includes more complex thinking, and which can overrule the amygdala.
But the brain remembers! When you face a new event that reminds the amygdala of a previous fearful event, the amygdala triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response. It primarily remembers the emotions associated with the prior experience – especially if fear was part of the memory.
This information explains why it is so important to keep on track for leading your lives as coParents as child-centric. This means no fighting in front of the child.
Excerpt from Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High-Conflict Divorce. By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Published by HCI Press.